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Book Review: The Breath of a Whale

By: Liz Clift

If you need some light reading to help you get through the pandemic surge, I recommend Leigh Calvez’s The Breath of a Whale: The Science and Spirit of Pacific Ocean Giants. Calvez is a scientist and author, who spent years researching, observing, and documenting the lives of whales—and in this short book of essays, she tells snapshot stories focused on whales that live in the Pacific Ocean.

These essays are focused on a variety of species, and while Calvez’s writing is mostly grounded in science and experience, it’s clear these essays are also part memoir. For some of you, that might be off-putting. After all, there was a period of time when science books stuck mostly to science and we, as readers, were supposed to believe that the writer was impartial.

Calvez—like many of her contemporaries—doesn’t stick to that trope of impartiality, and I think the book is better for it. While Calvez does veer into mysticism and some parts feel a little woo (the book is subtitled with both science and spirit), the book doesn’t feel inauthentic and it’s clear that Calvez is hoping her audience will come to appreciate cetaceans in the ways she does—and by extension care about their survival.

And their survival, as apex species, is critical for maintaining balance in the oceans. As Calvez explains within the essays, their survival isn’t just a matter of food—but of pollution, of noise, and of our infringement into their spaces. We can make different choices—and lobby for better policy—to help protect these ocean giants.

Calvez stays away from too much scientific jargon, which helps make this book an accessible read regardless of your background in science—and the essays are short, so there’s not problem if you put the book down for as long as you need before you read the next one.

I read a physical copy of the book, which probably impacted my experience with it. For kicks, I looked up reviews of the audiobook—and if you go that route, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s enjoyable or not. Based on reviews, it seems like some of the narrative structure of the book was lost in the audio version (Calvez frequently uses visual cues that she’s transitioning from one topic—or adventure—to a related one), and that those structural choices left the audio version feeling disjointed.

If you’ve already read The Breath of a Whale, hop onto our social media posts about this topic and let us know what you thought of it!